Judis Delivers a Tea Party History Lesson

Paul's Kentucky victory prompts new coverage of the movement

Rand Paul’s victory in Kentucky has brought new energy to the Tea Party crowd—and prompted a flurry of coverage of the man and the movement.

But before the next Tea Party narrative takes hold, it’s worth slowing down enough to read a new John Judis piece that puts the phenomenon in the historical and intellectual context that’s so often lacking.

Judis starts by warning liberals that “the Tea Party movement is not inauthentic, and—contrary to the impression its rallies give off—it isn’t a fringe faction either.”

But this essay isn’t just for liberals. He provides a concise summary of the Tea Party’s history, organization, and composition, then digs into its ideological underpinnings, old and new—all good stuff for anyone trying to understand the politics of the moment.

Judis calls the current crop of disgruntled voters “descendants of a number of conservative insurgencies from the past two generations: the anti-tax rebellion of the late ’70s, the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition of the ’80s and ’90s, and Pat Buchanan’s presidential runs.”

Sociologists who have studied these earlier movements describe their followers as coming from the “marginal segments of the middle class.” That’s a sociological, but also a political, fact. These men and women look uneasily upward at corporate CEOs and investment bankers, and downward at low-wage service workers and laborers, many of whom are minorities. And their political outlook is defined by whether they primarily blame those below or above for the social and economic anxieties they feel. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the marginal middle class was the breeding ground for left-wing attacks against Wall Street. For the last half-century, it has nourished right-wing complaints about blacks, illegal immigrants, and the poor.

That’s a smart analysis.

But he also takes a deeper historical look at the roots of the movement, focusing on “three general ideas that have played a key role in U.S. politics since the country’s early days.”

The first is an obsession with decline. This idea, which traces back to the outlook of New England Puritans during the seventeenth century, consists of a belief that a golden age occurred some time ago; that we are now in a period of severe social, economic, or moral decay; that evil forces and individuals are the cause of this situation; that the goal of politics is to restore the earlier period; and that the key to doing so is heeding a special text that can serve as a guidebook for the journey backward. (The main difference between the far right and far left is that the left locates the golden age in the future.)

The Puritans wanted to recreate the era of early Christianity in New England, and relied on the Bible as their guide, Judis writes. “For the Tea Partiers, the golden age is the time of the Founders, and adherence to the Constitution is the means to restore this period in the face of challenges from secular humanism, radical Islam, and especially socialism.”

Judis also points to “a staunch anti-statism” of today’s Tea Party movement that can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson:

What began as a sentiment of the left—a rejection of state monopolies—became, after the industrial revolution and the rise of the labor movement, a weapon against progressive reforms. The basic idea—that government is a “necessary evil”—has retained its power, and, when the economy has faltered, Americans have been quick to blame Washington, perhaps even before they looked at Wall Street or big corporations.

The last strain he identifies is “a tradition of producerism that dates to Andrew Jackson,” or the notion that workers shouldn’t have to share the fruits of their labors “with the merchants and bankers who didn’t actually create anything.” There’s definitely some of that going around.

The Judis analysis quickly won praise from the Cato Institute’s David Boaz, a big player in the libertarian movement.

There’s plenty for libertarians to argue with in Judis’s essay. But it’s an encouraging report for those who think it’s a good thing that millions of Americans are rallying to the cause of smaller government and lower spending. And certainly it’s the smartest, most historically grounded analysis of the Tea Party movement I’ve seen in the mainstream liberal media.

Of course, understanding the roots of the Tea Party movement isn’t enough to capture the moment. For starters, there’s also the question of just how closely aligned Rand Paul and the Tea Party movement really are.

Ron Paul, his father, tried to spin it wide last night, seeming to signal to Republican leaders that they shouldn’t dismiss the Kentucky vote as a fringe affair.

“When Rand talks about the Tea Party movement, it’s the same as saying, ‘Talk to the grass-roots people,’ ” Ron Paul said. “And ‘Get rid of the power people,’ the people who run the show, the people who think they are above everybody else. That’s what people are sick and tired of. That’s a message a lot of us have talked about for years and Rand has for about a year, and that’s why he’s done so well.”

The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder wrote convincingly of why it would be a mistake to go too far with the “Tea Party victory” meme.

But let’s be careful about giving this amorphous movement too much credit. Rand Paul first attracted attention in Kentucky because he was Rand Paul. Then he married his anti-government message to his father’s economic libertarian movement. He parried against an opponent, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who embodied the establishment. Nevermind that this establishment was doing everything in its power to thwart Barack Obama … politics doesn’t always make sense. But Paul was change. A specific kind of change. He was acceptable enough for frustrated conservative base voters. And he’s going to be a tough candidate for Democrats to beat in the fall.

Where Paul—and the Tea Party movement—go from here is an open question. It’s sure to get a lot of coverage. But readers need context, not just crowds at rallies. Well done to Judis for getting it started.

— Further Reading:

Coverage of Tea Parties Evolves With the Movement

10 Fictitious Tea Party Beliefs

Little-Known Club for Growth Group Causing Headaches for GOP

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.